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Student Scribe Posts

30 Nov

carts1Go to any grocery store parking lot in Germany, and you will never…and I mean never…see any stray shopping carts rattling along in the wind or parked in the hedges. Every carriage is always tucked back in the rack, sometimes in color coded rows. In the United States I always put my cart back where it belonged, and I secretly enjoyed rounding up any strays I came across. Imposing order on this chaotic world, even in small doses, soothes my fastidious soul. My fellow countrymen, however, do not share my O.C.D. Most people leave carts wherever they damn well please.

Yet, the difference in national shopping cart parking habits does not reveal some great divide between American and German gentility. Germans do not return their carts out of an altruistic urge to avoid scratching their neighbors’ Audis. Instead, grocery stores in Germany simply engineer order into their systems. To get a cart, you have to unlock it from the rack with a coin. When you’re done, you can’t get your money back until you return the cart and secure it to its mates. It’s a simple system that works beautifully.

Medieval_writing_deskThe Student Scribe system works in much the same way; it’s a simple system, that once implemented, works with minimal effort on the teacher’s part. I first learned about the idea from Darren Kuropatwa, and I found his blog posts on student scribes very useful when setting up my scribe system for the first time.

On most days, one student takes communal notes and then posts these to a class wiki. Each post ends with the current student choosing the next scribe. Here are the directions I give my students regarding scribe posts:

 

 

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Parent Teacher Conference Game

9 Nov

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 11.31.06 AMI have one finely honed skill that serves me better in the classroom than all the rest: I know when I should steal a great idea. Well, I am not really stealing an idea if I give credit, and the person who originated the idea is sharing it freely.

No single teacher can always be the perfect creative force who whips up an appropriate and effective solution to every teaching dilemma. We educators work best when we work together…or we at least share. At its core, sharing is what this blog is all about, so here is a great idea for your next parent/teacher conference. I just finished mine.

Thankfully, at my school we really hold parent/teacher/student conferences; the student does most of the talking. In the past, I have always been a bit flummoxed as to how to get every student to talk precisely and honestly about his or her class work. My excelling students spoke articulately about their work, but my struggling students…well…struggled to pinpoint what they needed to do to improve.

This last time around, however, I stole an idea from my colleague that worked perfectly. You should steal it, too. Here is the explanation video he sent to us: Continue reading

Animoto Tips and Tricks

3 Nov

AnimotoAnimoto makes you look good…really good. Their simple interface makes creating professional quality slideshows soooooooo easy. If you don’t know about this site, go there now. You can get started making videos of up to 30 seconds in length without paying anything.

Even better, if you’re a teacher, the good folks at Animoto will give you a free, full-access educator’s account that gives you (and your students) six months of full service. When your six months are up, just contact them, and they will keep hooking you up with new codes and more service. Some of the themes and features require a professional account (another paid level), but the choices connected with free educator accounts are vast.

I was recently playing around on my phone and made this video in less than 30 minutes. The mobile app is quite elegant and user friendly. That short video inspired me to offer Animoto to all the grade 10 students at Frankfurt International School.

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Visualizing One Million

10 May

one million bonesTo help my students care about one, I try to get them to picture one million. Big numbers are really big…too vast to properly understand without help. This activity can be used in any situation where students would benefit from grasping big numbers, but I use it as an opening exercise in our study of The Diary of Anne Frank.

In this situation, understanding the expanse of one million helps students begin to comprehend the vastness of six to 12 million, the estimated number of people killed during the Holocaust. When students have a nascent, sobering understanding of the horrific scale of this genocide, they approach our study of Anne’s diary with more care, solemnity, and empathy. I emphasize the privilege and duty we have to explore one small part of one life. In doing so we begin to understand the immeasurable loss and, hopefully, do what we can to ensure something like this never happens again.

 

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Battle of the Gods: Introduction to Mythology Lesson

9 Feb

Deus-RaFor the past few weeks, my grade 6 students and I have been sailing the Nile in a felucca, learning about powerful Egyptian pharaohs by exploring monuments of the ancient world. I cannot take credit for these excellent lessons, though. They come from the History Alive! curriculum we have adopted this year, and I am over-the-moon impressed with these engaging resources.

I teach the same students in humanities and English, so I wanted to develop lessons on Egyptian mythology that connected to our humanities work. I came up with a simple idea that worked out beautifully.

The students spent a portion of two class periods researching a couple Egyptian gods, filled out a “playing card” for each god to synthesize their learning, and then mercilessly tried to destroy their classmates with their newfound knowledge, reducing their peers to whimpering sycophants in awe of an obviously superior, juicy brain.

O.K. I may be getting a tad melodramatic there.

But, the lesson proved to be very entertaining and effective, while putting the majority of the heavy mental lifting on the students. Also, I can easily adapt this lesson for Greek and Roman mythology, which we will begin in another week or so.

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No Dead Fish: Teaching Students to Write Effective Introductions

12 Jan

dead fishDead Fish Handshakes are a huge pet peeve of mine. You offer your hand in greeting and the other person returns a grip that is downright soggy, their hand flopping in yours like a lifeless cod. It’s not a huge offense in the grand scheme of things, but it also seems like such an easy thing to avoid. Just get a grip, people. Of course, pedestrian, soulless introductory paragraphs are much more difficult to avoid. Teachers of writing will instantly recognize these “dead fish” beginnings. We are all too familiar with them. I have, however, had considerable success using the following strategy to help students write more lively, effective introductory paragraphs.

I use a fairly common symbol to articulate the role of an introductory paragraph. This handout is probably something you have seen before, an inverted triangle (or funnel) that reminds students to begin broadly with a HOOK, narrow the focus of the essay with a few sentences that act as a BRIDGE, and then end the paragraph with a clear THESIS. Of course, this is not the only way to write an effective introduction, but it is an excellent model for most situations, especially for young writers.

(Yes, old writers can benefit from it too. You are a clever little monkey and have figured out that the introductory paragraph to this post follows the same format. Well done.)

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Teacher Stress: My Management Techniques

23 Nov

stressRecently, a speaker during one of my school’s professional development days stated that 95% of the stress we feel is self-inflicted. That feels right.

I am a lucky. I rarely feel much stress about anything outside of the classroom. But, I am also unlucky; I regularly wink awake in the middle of the night, mind racing with “work stuff.”

Luckily, I have made some progress with nurturing a healthy, relaxed state of mind. Of course, my success is relative. Depending on the week (or even the day) my stress level fluctuates. Honestly, the week in which I’ve written this post has been particularly jam-packed, and I felt more stress than usual.

Regardless of my daily state-of-mind, however, some things consistently help me navigate the ebb and flow of stress that comes with being a classroom teacher:

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Alternative Classroom Discussion Formats

25 May

I’m closing in on my sixteenth year in an English classroom, and as any veteran teacher will admit, falling into ruts can be fairly easy. I will freely acknowledge that I can sometimes slip into default mode, especially when it comes to class discussions. I know how to foster a well-paced, inclusive discussion that avoids the Select Few dominating the discourse. I don’t, then, feel particularly impelled to change the format. But, boy, I’m glad that I still do.

My colleague in sophomore English is a gregarious, inventive, and reflective teacher just finishing his second year. He has some really good ideas on how to flip modes of discussion to play to various students’ strengths. In this post, I’m just going to rip off his ideas (and some ideas from others), giving full credit, of course.

The Experts Panel:

My colleague came up with this idea. At my school, students taking English for honors credit and those receiving standard credit are in the same section. We have to differentiate in some creative ways. One thing honors students must do is read an extra book and participate in extra discussions outside of class. This term students read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.

As the students read the book, we constructed a series of Fishbowl Discussions to monitor their understanding of the text. (More on the Fishbowl technique below.) For the final discussion, however, we devised an alternative format using Google Hangouts. Unfortunately, we hit a snag. Users under 18 years of age cannot record Google Hangouts. Scrambling for an alternative, my colleague came up with the Experts Panel format.

We determined general categories of discussion topics beforehand and asked each student to prepare a few discussion questions from each category, emphasizing that the quality of their questions would help us gauge their understanding of the novel.

On the day of the discussion, we randomly chose three to four students to sit at the front as our expert panel. Then, using wheeldecide.com to make a spinner, we randomly chose the topic. In addition to the categories listed in the assignment description, we added Teacher’s Choice and random prizes.

Once the category was chosen, the audience asked questions and the panelists provided answers. When a topic was exhausted, we rotated panelists, with every student getting a chance to be an expert. Of course, the teachers asked questions and sat on a panel, but we were largely observers.

The rapid fire Q&A format led to one of the best literary discussions of my teaching career. Students on the experts panel really worked to provide erudite and original answers, while a healthy competition arose in the audience to ask the most intelligent question.

This Experts Panel format would work for any subject area. Of course, if used too often any format becomes tedious, but the students truly responded to this approach.

Fishbowl Discussion:


This video at Edutopia does a better job than I could explaining the format. As my honors students read Swamplandia! we scheduled a few fishbowl discussions so I could monitor their understanding and guide their analysis. Students also took notes on a shared Google Doc as they discussed so they could reference these notes later on. Due to numbers, I was the only one on the outside of the fishbowl, but I’ve used this format often. Giving students the chance to observe discussion can greatly improve their contributions when they are active participants.

Structured Academic Conversation as Debate Alternative

 

Tweet the Debate

 

Alternative Discussion Formats: Dr. Cavanaugh

 

50 Alternatives to Lecture

Landing an International Teaching Job

11 May
Land and a group of suitcases. To take a vacati

copyleft image uploaded to http://www.sxc.hu by kolobsek

For the third time in my life, I am in the process of selling most of my worldly possessions. My wife and I live “lightly” to begin with, so it isn’t as if we have much to let go that didn’t originally come from Craig’s List. The process of divesting, however, is always cathartic: it acts as a physical reminder to focus on accumulating experiences and relationships rather than things. They’re much easier and cheaper to take with you.

We have accepted jobs at Frankfurt International School, a wonderful international school in post-card perfect Oberursel. In July we will arrive in Germany with an obscene amount of clothes, a few favorite books, kitchen gadgets Julia Child would envy, and one loving-but-psychotic Australian Shepherd mixed breed.

It is a homecoming. We worked at this school before moving to Boston, and many of our good friends are still around. We own an apartment there, and our German language skills are spotty but passable. Here’s my one joke in German: Ich spreche Deutsch gleich ein blautig Juenger. Not everyone thinks it’s funny, so I’ve got to get some new ones.

Luckily, I will miss my students and colleagues at Beaver Country Day School. I’ve been fortunate. Every time I have left one school for another, it has been on positive terms, and I have always loved each new place. I know I am fortunate.

In this post, then, I want to share some of my advice for why you might want a job at an international school and how you might go about looking for one. My experience comes from an American point-of-view, but I think it could easily work for teachers from other countries as well:

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Teaching Theme: The Red Tree

15 Dec
click the image to read more about this book

click the image to read more about this book

My very first department chair regularly read favorite books to his classes. He wasn’t a snob, either. He reveled in good writing, regardless of genre or target audience.

He was the first person to tell me about Harry Potter. He said something like, “The kids in England are reading this. It’s wonderful, and I think it’s going to be big over here.” Yes, he was a prescient guy. He was also brave. He often read picture books to seniors in high school…and they loved it. One of his favorite children’s books is now one of mine: The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. I use it to teach theme.

I begin my introductory lesson on theme by asking students to formulate a working definition (SEE THIS HANDOUT). As a class, they always come up with a decent one. I might have to do a bit of prodding, but this stuff is usually “in there.”

After collecting definitions, we refine our conception of theme. Depending on what was compiled in class (I usually use a common Google Doc to have students shape collective definitions), I emphasize certain aspects. My key points are always:

  • Multiple themes exist in any piece of art. Art is nuanced, so any painting, story, photograph, play, sculpture, or song will have multiple lessons within.
  • The author really means it. I tell my students, “I don’t think authors intend every message English teachers squeeze out of the work, but I’ve been around enough writers and written enough on my own to understand that writers are very intentional, even neurotic…so critical readers honor the craftsmanship of artists.” Or, I might just say, “They mean most of this stuff. Trust me.”
  • A theme is never one word. There’s a difference between topics and themes. Family, love, and betrayal are all topics. The specific comment the author wants to make about families is the theme.

No surprise. The students breeze through the definition process but STRUGGLE to write coherent, original theme statements that go beyond the obvious and avoid simple summary. In other words, they can define concepts but need help applying them. No matter… I keep my job because they need such help.

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